UK: THE BUSINESS OF BOOK-LEARNING.

UK: THE BUSINESS OF BOOK-LEARNING. - Snapshots from Hell, The Making of an MBA by Peter Robinson. Nicholas Brealey; 286pp; £9.99 paperback.

by Sir Geoffrey Chandler, former director-general of NEDO andnow chairman of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, reflects onthe education of managers.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Snapshots from Hell, The Making of an MBA by Peter Robinson. Nicholas Brealey; 286pp; £9.99 paperback.

Drivers have licences, doctors seven years' training and the Hippocratic Oath, businessmen the seat of their pants. And pants can be very successful. The history of business and industry is starred with self-made figures whose lack of formal education, abundant determination and acute intuition are part of the folklore. It is a folklore which dies hard. Even in a computer age, business criticises education rather than seeing itself as a means to its improvement and believes that training should be voluntary rather than imposed.

Driving and medicine are of course dangerous to others. Both can kill. But business too can make or break the lives of individuals, communities and eventually countries. To see it as less important than the professions or public life is the Achilles heel of British culture, reflected in our being content to let business remain an amateur sport, lacking - despite the welcome panoply of training facilities and vocational qualifications now available - any universal standards of competence and training.

They order these things differently in France, Germany and Japan, all of which have surpassed Britain's own standard of living in the past 30 years. The reason lies in the levels of qualification and training of both management and workforce. As for the US, the passionate belief in the self-made man has gone hand in hand with a belief in education as a route to success from which business has not been immune. The Wharton School of Business was founded in 1881; Harvard in 1908; Stanford in 1925. The London Business School only opened its doors in 1965, yet we already indulge ourselves in the luxury of querying the relevance and value of the MBA, just as, as late as the 1980s, there were industrialists determined that no graduate should join their now defunct companies.

What does an MBA do for people? Since it is probably within the business schools that British and American culture most nearly meet, a compellingly engaging account of an experience at Stanford Business School has much to commend it to British readers. Its author, Peter Robinson, went to Stanford at the age of 31, after six years in the White House as speech writer for the 'great communicator', Ronald Reagan. As a 'poet', the business school sobriquet for students with no mathematical background, the 'hell' he encountered was having to grapple with a numerate, computerised world and its examinations, little comprehension and less sleep. Those similarly handicapped, such as myself, will sympathise with his despairing answer to a complex decision-tree problem: 'If he finds the horse, he should shoot it. If he does not, he should shoot himself.' He flunked this exam; but went on to become a fully-fledged MBA.

What he gained from it was an appreciation of the talent and creativity required in business, the capacity to ask numerate questions, if not answer them, a recognition that analysis is needed to balance intuition. Sure, you don't need an MBA to do this, any more than you need a PhD to understand the first law of thermodynamics. But, standing as it does at the apex of business education, an MBA is more than a 'yuppie union card', and fully justifies the practice of consultancies in employing MBAs for their analytical training even if they lack other experience.

It is this other experience that cannot be gained by education alone. Just as a driving licence doesn't make a good driver, so an MBA doesn't make a good manager. Administration is about money and things; management is about people. If intuition needs to be balanced by analysis, analysis needs to be balanced by intuition and by an understanding of people and their needs. You don't need to have heard of Theory X and Y to know that people respond better to leadership than coercion. But if you don't know it - and the recent rail dispute suggests that many don't - it is helpful to know the thinking that underlies the conclusion that Theory Y fits observed experience better than X.

Peter Robinson noted the gulf between politics and business - politics being 'big ideas and talk', business being 'implementation, organisation, specifics, numbers'. But it is a false dichotomy. Business also needs ideas and talk: analysis is not enough. The lack of leadership evinced by chief executives who accept huge pay rises (however merited), while downsizing and preaching wage restraint, will not be cured by an MBA. But it might be tempered if all management training exposed present or future managers to concepts about human relations in industry. And since it is failures in human relationships, perhaps more than failures in analysis (which you can at the end of the day buy in), that lead to business disasters, it could make sense to ensure that no manager reaches a top position without exposure to such training.

That this is to spit in the wind of current governmental and business dogma goes without saying. But it is also worth remembering, as we emerge from the longest postwar recession, that until our education and training match that of our competitors, this recovery, like earlier ones, will represent just an upward fluctuation round a continuing relative downward trend. Wellington may or may not have said that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. But it is certainly true today that the economic battle will be won in the schools, colleges and training institutions of this country - that is if we have the vision to see it.

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Compiled by Bookwatch.

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